Dum Pendebat Filius

A sniff in the kortevar, that what you cry for, yeled? A prert up the cull, a prang on the dumpendebat?

Soft white underbelly

Today I finished re-reading Don DeLillo’s first novel, Americana (1971). It was a frustrating experience.

I’m a huge fan of DeLillo. I consider him to be the preeminent post-WWII American novelist, surpassing not only Mailer, but also the rest of the post-WWII canon (Updike, Roth, Bellow), leaving them in his dust. The best American novelist since Faulkner, that’s my opinion of DeLillo.

I first read Americana back in the fall of 1996. I didn’t remember it very well at all; in fact, I might as well have never read it. Beyond a memory of vague dissatisfaction, I didn’t remember one thing about it. Now I’ve read it again, and I know what I don’t like about it.

The book is, simply, overwritten. The prose achieves brilliance at times, but almost always spoils itself by going on too far, like this:

My father had just turned fifty-five, a fact which seemed to have transformed him, virtually overnight, into a role of elder statesman. Prior to our meeting in the restaurant I had seen him just once since his birthday. On that occasion, a drink after work, he had seemed very conscious of his elbows. When he spoke he would pivot on the barstool and lean toward me with both elbows flung up and out like delta wings. At other times, head hanging loosely over his drink, he would raise his right index finger and then use it to tap his left elbow, which lay bent on the bar. I wondered whether the significance of his remark might be fully uncovered only by opening up the elbow and picking with a delicate surgical instrument among its connective tissues. That evening he had made me think of John Foster Dulles and Casey Stengel, two elder statesmen who knew how to use their elbows.

Or this wince-inducing lapse into pseudo-profundity:

Summer in a small town can be deadly, even worse in a way than slum summers or the deep wet summers of gulf ports. It isn’t the deadliness of filth or despair and it doesn’t afflict everyone. But there are days when a terrible message seems to be passing from sunlight to shadow at the edge of a striped afternoon in the returning fathoms of time. Summer unfolds slowly, a carpeted silence rolling out across expanding steel, and the days begin to rhyme, distance swelling with the bridges, heat bending the air, small breaks in the pavement, those days when nothing seems to live on the earth but butterflies, the tranquilized mantis, the spider scaling the length of the mudcaked broken rake inside the dark garage. A scream seems imminent at every window. The menace of the history of quiet lives is that when the moment comes, the slow opened motion of the mouth, the sound which erupts will shatter everything that lives for miles around. The threat is at its worst in the summer [... etc, etc, etc.]

The conceit of Americana is that of a man grown world-weary at twenty-eight, running away from his high-powered Manhattan TV-network job to disappear into the Midwest and make a reflective film about himself, his life and the “soft white underbelly” of the American Dream, all at the same time. At 377 pages, it’s about 177 pages too long. You can sense a novelist of considerable gifts immersed somewhere in all the purple prose. Fortunately, that novelist was soon to emerge; DeLillo’s second novel, End Zone (1972), was absolutely first-rate, the work of a mature and extremely talented writer of fiction.

Filed under: Literature by dumpendebat at 2005/10/02 - 19:40


  1. RP:

    “The best American novelist since Faulkner, that’s my opinion of DeLillo.”

    I’m curious which, if any, of his works strikes you as the best American novel since _____________(insert title) by Faulkner.

    And on what criteria are you basing such an assessment? Faulkner is without a doubt great and DeLillo (I’ve only read LIBRA and WHITE NOISE) is definitely contending for great but … This is some claim from my learned friend.

    Have you read BLOOD MERIDIAN? Stylistically you may find McCarthy quite pleasing if you like the “failed poet” Faulkner.

    What about Toni Morrison? What about Nathaniel West? What about Roth? What about Tim O’Brien for that matter? Shit man! What about Thomas fuckin’ Pynchon?

    Best since Faulkner?

  2. dumpendebat:

    1. Cormac McCarthy: I read the Border Trilogy and was underwhelmed, to put it mildly. I thought the whole trilogy read like a soft-boiled pastiche halfway between Faulkner and Hemingway. I have not, however, read Blood Meridian, and wouldn’t mind doing so.

    2. Toni Morrison: I haven’t read any of her work.

    3. Nathanael West: I’m a fan. Miss Lonelyhearts borders on genius. Day of the Locust is very good. The Dream Life of Balso Snell and A Cool Million are not so impressive. Still, Nathanael West was talented and promising. I think he’s underrated. He died young in a car crash, and who knows what he might have been capable of had he lived longer.

    4. Philip Roth: Overpraised garbage. I am completely unable to understand his appeal or his critical reputation.

    5. Tim O’Brien: Haven’t read any.

    6. Pynchon: His novels have always defeated me. I was unable to finish V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow (twice). I simply don’t “get” Pynchon, and probably never will.

    The DeLillo novels I admire most are White Noise, Ratner’s Star (his funniest novel), The Names, and Running Dog (probably my favorite). Really, the only DeLillo novels I’m less than 100% enthusiastic about would be Americana, Great Jones Street, and Cosmopolis.

    DeLillo’s a “systems” kind of writer. He goes beneath the surface to reveal structures and underpinnings. He’s not afraid of a large canvas (Underworld) or a small tone-poem (The Body Artist). His dialogue often achieves perfection. And the world we live in is increasingly coming to resemble the world he’s been writing about for thirty years.

  3. RP:

    I’m going to pick up The Body Artist. It’s on the bargain shelf at B&N–”a small-tone poem” intrigues me.

    I suppose I read your praise of DeLillo as a sort of equivalency to Faulkner. I simply don’t see justification for that. Faulkner–at least as far as American fiction goes–is practically in a class by himself.

    Give McCarthy another shot. Blood Meridian will please you if for no other reason because of its subtle allusions to Faulkner and Melville. It’s subtitled “The Evening Redness of the West.” I’ve just finished No Country for Old Men. It’s no great shakes.

    Perhaps falling in love with individual works rather than an entire body of work is my downfall in appraising these authors. I teach individual works (sometimes I can “pair” the work with another, e.g. ABSALOM, ABSALOM! with BELOVED;or, GATSBY with MISS LONELYHEARTS) so I suppose my sensitivites are conditioned. I would like in the future to take on more Faulkner. I have a friend here who is writing a book about the “composite novel.” Her primary concerns are Faulkner and Joyce. She argues too that the entire oeuvre is necessary in order to critically appreciate such genius.

  4. dumpendebat:

    The first thing to keep in mind here is to take anything I say with a grain of salt. I am the fucking king of shallow erudition. I’m basically a computer-systems hacker who dropped out of college after only two full semesters. I read widely, but have no background in literary theory (or even critical thinking, for that matter). Literature (particularly 20th-century lit) is one of my serious interests, but I’m a layman.

    DeLillo probably isn’t equal to Faulkner, but who is? Still, I’d be comfortable naming DeLillo in the top five American novelists of all time. I wouldn’t say that about anybody else we’ve mentioned.

    I am very much a body-of-work guy. I’ve read all of Faulkner’s novels except for A Fable (which I keep putting off, because I know it’s going to be a tedious slog). Once I decide I really like an author, I tend to become something of a completist. The authors I admire most (Faulkner, Joyce, Orwell, DeLillo, Anthony Burgess) were mostly body-of-work guys, as it turns out. Burgess, for example, wrote over thirty novels, most of which were of very high quality indeed, which is why I consider him a giant among 20th-century novelists, but he never wrote one indisputable masterpiece. That might be the case with DeLillo, too… I can’t name one novel that seems head and shoulders above the others, but put all thirteen of them together and you’ve got a capital-G Great Novelist.

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